history of the third day of the Battle of
Gettysburg (July 3, 1863) has focused on the
disastrous infantry assault nicknamed Pickett's Charge.
Farnsworth's Charge, Battles
During and after that charge, however, two
significant cavalry battles
also occurred: one
approximately three miles (5 km) to the east, in the area
known today as East Cavalry Field, the other southwest of the [Big]
mountain (sometimes called
South Cavalry Field).
The East Cavalry Field fighting was an attempt by Maj. Gen. J.E.B.
cavalry to get into the
Federal rear and exploit any success that Pickett's Charge may have
cavalry under Brig. Gens. David McM. Gregg
and George Armstrong Custer
In South Cavalry Field, after Pickett's Charge had been defeated,
reckless cavalry charges against the right flank of the Confederate
Army, ordered by Brig. Gen. Judson
, were easily repulsed, resulting in the death of
Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth
Background and cavalry forces
Cavalry forces played a significant role at Gettysburg only on the
first and third days of the battle. On the first day (July 1,
1863), the Union cavalry division of Brig. Gen. John Buford
successfully delayed the Confederate
infantry forces under Maj. Gen. Henry
until Union infantry could arrive on the battlefield. By
the end of the day, Buford's troopers had retired from the
On the Confederate side, most of Maj. Gen. Stuart's cavalry
division was absent from the battlefield until late on the second
day. Possibly misunderstanding orders from General Robert E.
, Stuart had taken his three best
brigades of cavalry on a pointless ride around the right flank of
the Union Army of the Potomac
and was out of touch with the main body of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
June 24, depriving Lee of critical intelligence information and of
screening services. Stuart arrived from Carlisle at General Lee's headquarters shortly after noon on
July 2, and his exhausted brigades arrived that evening, too late
to affect the planning or execution of the second day's
Hampton's Brigade camped to the north, following the
relatively minor clash with Union cavalry at Hunterstown
Lee's orders for Stuart were to prepare for operations on July 3 in
support of the Confederate infantry assault against the center of
the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Stuart was to protect the
Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right
flank and into the enemy's rear. If Stuart's forces could proceed
south from the York Pike along the Low Dutch Road, they would soon
reach the Baltimore Pike, which was the main avenue of
communications for the Army of the Potomac, and they could launch
devastating and demoralizing attacks against the Union rear,
capitalizing on the confusion from the assault (Pickett's Charge)
that Lee planned for the Union center.
Confederate cavalry forces under Stuart for this operation
consisted of the three brigades he had taken on his ride around the
Union Army (commanded by Brig.
Gen. Wade Hampton
, Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee
, and Colonel John Chambliss
) and the brigade of Col.
Albert G. Jenkins
(under the command of Col.
Milton J. Ferguson
wounding on July 2). Although these four brigades should have
amounted to approximately 5,000 troopers, it is likely that only
3,430 men and 13 guns saw action that day. And following their
nine-day ride around Maryland and Pennsylvania, they and their
horses were weary and not in prime condition for battle.
Union cavalry forces were from the corps of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton
, who did not participate
directly in the command of any cavalry actions during the Battle of
Gettysburg. Since most of Buford's division had retired
Maryland (with the exception of his reserve brigade under
Gen. Wesley Merritt
which was deployed directly south of Gettysburg), only two
divisions were ready for action. Stationed near the intersection of
the Hanover Road and the Low Dutch Road—directly on Stuart's
path—was the division of Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg
. Gregg had two brigades present at
Gettysburg, under Col. John B.
and Col. J. Irvin Gregg
(David Gregg's cousin), but the latter was stationed on the
Baltimore Pike. Irvin Gregg's one-brigade command was supplemented
by the newly formed "Michigan
" of Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer
. Custer was
assigned to the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick
but happened to be on
loan to David Gregg and requested permission from Gregg to join his
fight. Altogether, 3,250 Union troopers opposed Stuart. The other
brigade from Kilpatrick's division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Elon J.
Farnsworth, was stationed to the southwest of the Round Top
mountain, the area now known informally as South Cavalry
Principal commanders of cavalry at Gettysburg, July 3
Wade Hampton, CSA
Image:Fitzhugh Lee General.jpg|
Fitzhugh Lee, CSA
Alfred Pleasonton, USA
Image:David McMurtrie Gregg.jpg|
Image:G a custer.jpg|
Judson Kilpatrick, USA
Image:Elon John Farnsworth.jpg|
East Cavalry Field
[[Image:Gettysburg East Cavalry Field1.png|thumb|300px|Gettysburg
East Cavalry Field, opening positions
Gettysburg East Cavalry Field, charge
of the 7th Michigan
Gettysburg East Cavalry Field, final
At about 11 a.m. on July 3, Stuart reached Cress Ridge, just north
of what is now called East Cavalry Field, and signaled Lee that he
was in position by ordering the firing of four guns, one in each
direction of the compass. This was a foolish error because he also
alerted Gregg to his presence. The brigades of McIntosh and Custer
were positioned to block Stuart. As the Confederates approached,
Gregg engaged them with an artillery duel, and the superior skills
of the Union horse artillerymen got the better of Stuart's
Stuart's plan had been to pin down McIntosh's and Custer's
skirmishers around the Rummel farm and swing over Cress Ridge,
around the left flank of the defenders, but the Federal skirmish
line pushed back tenaciously; the troopers from the 5th Michigan Cavalry
were armed with Spencer
, multiplying their firepower. Stuart decided
on a direct cavalry charge to break their resistance. He ordered an
assault by the 1st Virginia Cavalry, his own old regiment, now in
Fitz Lee's brigade. The battle started in earnest at
approximately 1 p.m., at the same time that Col. Edward Porter Alexander's
Confederate artillery barrage opened up on Cemetery Ridge.
Fitz Lee's troopers came pouring through
the farm of John Rummel, scattering the Union skirmish line.
Gregg ordered Custer to counterattack with the 7th Michigan
personally led the regiment, shouting "Come on, you Wolverines!"
Waves of horsemen collided in furious fighting along the fence line
on Rummel's farm. Seven hundred men fought at point-blank range
across the fence with carbines, pistols, and sabers. Custer's horse
was shot out from under him, and he commandeered a bugler's horse.
Eventually enough of Custer's men were amassed to break down the
fence, and they caused the Virginians to retreat. Stuart sent in
reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th
Virginia (Chambliss's Brigade), the 1st North Carolina and Jeff
Davis Legion (Hampton's), and squadrons from the 2nd Virginia
(Lee's). Custer's pursuit was broken, and the 7th Michigan fell
back in a disorderly retreat.
Stuart tried again for a breakthrough by sending in the bulk of
Wade Hampton's brigade, accelerating in formation from a walk to a
gallop, sabers flashing, calling forth "murmurs of admiration" from
their Union targets. Union horse artillery batteries
attempted to block the advance with shell and canister, but the
Confederates moved too quickly and were able to fill in for lost
men, maintaining their momentum. Once again the cry "Come on, you
Wolverines!" was heard as Custer and Col. Charles H. Town
led the 1st Michigan Cavalry
into the fray, also at a gallop. A trooper from one of Gregg's
Pennsylvania regiments observed,
As the horsemen fought desperately in the center, McIntosh
personally led his brigade against Hampton's right flank and the
3rd Pennsylvania and 1st New Jersey hit Hampton's left from north
of the Lott house. Hampton received a serious saber wound to the
head; Custer lost his second horse of the day. Assaulted from three
sides, the Confederates withdrew. The Union troopers were in no
condition to pursue beyond the Rummel farmhouse.
The losses from the 40 intense minutes of fighting on East Cavalry
Field were relatively minor: 254 Union casualties, 219 of them from
Custer's brigade; 181 Confederate. Although tactically
inconclusive, the battle was a strategic loss for Stuart and Robert
E. Lee, whose plans to drive into the Union rear were foiled.
South Cavalry Field
Gettysburg South Cavalry Field
On the morning of July 3, Union Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen.
ordered two of
his brigades to the left flank of the Union army. He ordered Brig.
Gen. Wesley Merritt
's Reserve Brigade
of Buford's division to move north from Emmitsburg to join Brig.
Gen. Judson Kilpatrick
moving from Two Taverns on the Baltimore Pike to the area southwest
of Round Top
. By this time, the only
brigade in Kilpatrick's division was that of Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth
, George Custer's brigade
having been detached for service with David Gregg at East Cavalry
Field. It is unclear what Pleasonton hoped to accomplish. There is
no record that he performed any reconnaissance in this area. It has
been speculated that Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade
was preparing for a possible
counterattack to follow the repulse of Pickett's Charge, which he
had anticipated since the night before.
Farnsworth reached the area at approximately 1 p.m., about the time
the massive Confederate artillery barrage started in preparation
for Pickett's Charge, and his 1,925 troops took up a position in a
line south of the George Bushman farm. From left to right, the
regiments were the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 1st West
Virginia, and 1st Vermont. Battery E., 4th U.S. Artillery, occupied
a small, rocky knoll in the rear and the 5th New York cavalry was
placed in a nearby ravine to guard the artillery. Joined by
Kilpatrick, they awaited Merritt's brigade, which arrived at about
3 p.m. and took up a position straddling the Emmitsburg Road, to
Farnsworth's left. By this time the infantry portion of Pickett's
Charge had begun, and Kilpatrick was eager to get his men into the
On the Confederate line to the east of the Emmitsburg Road, only
infantry troops were involved. The four brigades of Hood's
division, under the command of Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law, had
occupied the area from Round Top, through Devil's Den, and back to the road since the battle on July
Initially, Law had just the 1st Texas Infantry (from
Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson
's Texas Brigade
) facing Farnsworth to the south,
but he soon reinforced them with 47th Alabama Infantry, the 1st
South Carolina, and artillery. To the west of the road, facing
Merritt, was the Georgia brigade of Brig. Gen. George "Tige" Anderson
Young Kilpatrick had little experience in commanding cavalry, and
he demonstrated that by attacking fortified infantry positions in a
piecemeal fashion. West of the road, Merritt went in first, with
his 6th Pennsylvania cavalrymen fighting dismounted. Anderson's
Georgians repulsed their attack easily. Farnsworth was to follow,
but he was astonished to hear Kilpatrick's order for a mounted
cavalry charge. The Confederate defenders were positioned behind a
stone fence with wooden fence rails piled high above it, too high
for horses to jump, which would require the attackers to dismount
under fire and dismantle the fence. The terrain leading to it was
broken, undulating ground, with large boulders, fences, and
woodlots, making it unsuitable for a cavalry charge. Accounts
differ as to the details of the argument between Farnsworth and
Kilpatrick, but it is generally believed that Kilpatrick dared or
shamed Farnsworth into making the charge the latter knew would be
suicidal. Farnsworth allegedly said "General, if you order the
charge I will lead it, but you must take the awful
First in the assault was the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, led by
Colonel Nathaniel P. Richmond. They rode in great confusion after
coming under heavy fire from the 1st Texas, but they were able to
breach the wall. Hand-to-hand fighting with sabers, rifles, and
even rocks ensued, but the attack was forced back. Of the 400
Federal cavalrymen in the attack, there were 98 casualties. The
second wave came from the 18th Pennsylvania, supported by companies
of the 5th New York, but they were also turned back under heavy
rifle fire, with 20 casualties.
It was finally the turn of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, about 400
officers and men, which Farnsworth divided into three battalions of
four companies each under Lieutenant Colonel Addison W. Preston,
Major William Wells
Captain Henry C. Parsons. Parsons's battalion led the charge,
passing the Texans and riding north into the blinding sun toward
the John Slyder farm. Evander Law sent three Georgia regiments (the
9th, 11th, and 59th) to move to the support of the Texans and the
artillery batteries. A staff officer carrying the order encountered
the 4th Alabama, who also joined in support. An Alabama lieutenant
yelled "Cavalry, boys, cavalry! This is no fight, only a frolic,
give it to them!" And the infantrymen found many easy
All three battalion advances were turned back with great losses.
The final group, led by Wells and by Farnsworth, circled back
toward Big Round Top, where they met a line of the 15th Alabama
across their front. Farnsworth's party had dwindled to only 10
troopers as they weaved back and forth, trying to avoid the
murderous fire. Farnsworth fell from his horse, struck in the
chest, abdomen, and leg by five bullets. Postwar accounts by a
Confederate soldier that claimed Farnsworth committed suicide with
his pistol to avoid capture have been discounted. Major Wells
received the Medal of Honor
heroism in leading the rest of his men back to safety. The Vermont
regiment suffered 65 casualties during the futile assault.
Kilpatrick's ill-considered and poorly executed cavalry charges are
remembered as a low point in the history of the U.S. Cavalry and
marked the final significant hostilities at the Battle of
Gettysburg. Six miles (10 km) west of Gettysburg, one of Merritt's
regiments, the 6th U.S. Cavalry
, was defeated that afternoon at
by Brig. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones
's "Laurel Brigade," an
action not considered to be a formal part of the Battle of
Gettysburg, but one that had a critical role in the retreat of Lee's army
All of Pleasonton's cavalry brigades were exercised for the
remainder of the Gettysburg
in the lackluster pursuit of Lee's army back across
the Potomac River
- Bachelder, John B. (Ladd,
David L. and Audrey J., eds.), Bachelder's History of the
Battle of Gettysburg, ca. 1886, Morningside Press (maps of
East Cavalry Field).
- Clark, Champ, and the Editors of Time-Life Books,
Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, Time-Life Books,
1985, ISBN 0-8094-4758-4.
- Coddington, Edwin B., The Gettysburg Campaign; a study in
command, Scribner's, 1968, ISBN 0-684-84569-5.
- Parsons, H. C., "Farnsworth's Charge and Death", Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,
Robert Underwood Johnson,
and Clarence C. Buel (eds.), Century Co., 1884-1888.
- Longacre, Edward G., The Cavalry at Gettysburg,
University of Nebraska Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8032-7941-8.
- Pfanz, Harry W., The Battle of Gettysburg, National
Park Service Civil War Series, Eastern National, 1994, ISBN
- Sears, Stephen W.,
Gettysburg, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, ISBN
- Symonds, Craig L., American Heritage History of the Battle
of Gettysburg, HarperCollins, 2001, ISBN 0-06-019474-X.
- Trudeau, Noah Andre, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage,
HarperCollins, 2002, ISBN 0-06-019363-8.
- Wert, Jeffry D., Gettysburg:
Day Three, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN
- Clark, pp. 44-47; Coddington, pp. 266-67.
- Coddington, pp. 266-67; Eicher, pp. 506-7; Sears, p. 257; Wert,
- Wert, pp. 255-56; Coddington, p. 520; Sears, p. 391; Longacre,
- Sears, pp. 459-60; Wert, p. 260, claims 5,000 troopers;
Longacre, p. 220, 6,000.
- Coddington, p. 250.
- Sears, p. 460; Wert, p. 256.
- Sears, p. 460; Coddington, p. 521; Wert, p. 264.
- Longacre, p. 226; Sears, p. 461; Wert, p. 265.
- Sears, p. 461; Wert, pp. 266-67.
- Wert, pp. 268-69; Sears, pp. 461-62.
- Sears, p. 462; Wert, p. 269.
- Sears, p. 462; Wert, p. 271.
- Symonds, pp. 254-55; Sears, pp. 462-64; Coddington, pp.
- Longacre, p. 240; Wert, pp. 272-73.
- Wert, pp. 273-75.
- Wert, p. 276.
- Longacre, pp. 241-42; Wert, pp. 276-77.
- Longacre, p. 242; Wert, pp. 277-78; Sears, p. 464; Symonds, p.
- Symonds, p. 255; Trudeau, p. 519; Longacre, p. 243; Wert, pp.
279-80; Sears, p. 464; Parsons, Vol III, p. 396 (footnote) explains
how the suicide accounts may have originated.
- Pfanz, p. 52; Longacre, pp. 235-36; Wert, pp. 280-83.
- Pfanz, pp. 53-54; Sears, pp. 471-92; Coddington, pp.
- Carhart, Tom, Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at
Gettysburg—And Why It Failed, Putnam Adult, 2005, ISBN
- Gottfried, Bradley M., The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of
the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – June 13, 1863, Savas Beatie,
2007, ISBN 978-1-932714-30-2.
- East Cavalry Field:
- South Cavalry Field: